Straws in the Wind: How Many Foreign Students Will We Have This Fall?

By David North on May 5, 2020

How many foreign students will we have in our colleges and universities this fall?

It is too early to tell, as so much depends on how long the virus lasts, and how students and universities react to it. But we do have some pre-virus information on the numbers coming from the four largest senders of foreign students to the United States: China, India, South Korea, and Saudi Arabia.

In the 2018-2019 academic year, a little more than 60 percent of the international students in this country came from those four nations; the Institute of International Education (IIE), an advocacy entity that runs an annual survey of such students, showed these (rounded) totals:

  • China: 370,000
  • India: 202,000
  • South Korea: 52,000
  • Saudi Arabia: 37,000
  • All others: 434,000
  • Total: 1,095,000

The information we have that may predict future enrollments from these countries is from the monthly records of F-1 visa issuances in those four nations for the periods October to February prior to the opening of schools in the following September. With the exception of a declining number of visa issuances in February of this year in China, these data can be used to forecast the number of new enrollments from those nations this fall.

Student (F-1) Visas Issued Recently over Five-Month Periods in Four Nations

Period China India South Korea Saudi Arabia
October 2017 to February 2018 12,882 7,156 5,513 4,665
October 2018 to February 2019 11,309 8,378 5,493 3,822
October 2019 to February 2020 13,517 10,922 5,435 2,274

Source: U.S. Department of State.

So what we seem to have, in these four countries is a slowly rising number in China, a rapidly rising one in India, a slight decrease in South Korea, and a sharp reduction in Saudi Arabia, which can only be re-enforced by the collapse of oil prices. These are tallies of potential new students, not the total population of students from these nations.

This is not an encouraging set of straws in the wind; Chinese students tend to return home after graduation, while Indian ones linger in our labor markets, first as OPT workers and then as H-1B workers. The Arabs also return home in droves. I have no sense for these patterns among the Koreans.

Generally in recent years there have been mild declines in the number of foreign students while the numbers of alumni (re-defined as "students" in the OPT programs of subsidized jobs) have increased. Those OPT increases will probably start to disappear as the impact of the virus continues to batter the economy.

Irony. A few months ago, IIE was touting the presence of foreign students as a huge plus for the American economy, an estimate that could only be made if one ignores the fact that all university students (save a few in the private-for-profit realm) are heavily subsidized by either tax or endowment funds.

More recently, given widespread shutdowns of university campuses, some foreign students find themselves without the dormitory housing they had come to expect, and perhaps jobs as well, and barred from flying home, thus putting many of them in a genuine financial bind. With that in mind IIE is now asking the public to give money to a fund it has established for these students.

I am grateful to Kathleen Sharkey, a CIS intern, for her research assistance.